Saturday, December 1, 2007

Never a Dull Moment

Lots of things to track these days.

First, the Facebook Beacon outcry, media coverage, response, and response to response. Best overall coverage on the last few days on the Forrester folks' Groundswell blog. Also a Times article. The Facebook protest group is wonderful in and of itself--users trust Facebook enough to use it to try to get it to change itself!--though the comments on it make me shudder. It's just the grammar Nazi coming out in me, and the stop-making-obvious-and-stupid-arguments Nazi. My basic take on all this is that Facebook made a serious mistake (more serious than News Feed), has listened to its constituents, and is taking measured steps to do what it's being asked.

It's important to note that Facebook is not getting rid of Beacon, nor allowing you to opt out entirely, which is fine. It is now just doing what it stakes its reputation on: letting you decide for yourself what of your actions other people see. All these crazy people out there who are saying "oh, THIS is where these crazy teenagers draw the line? they post pictures of themselves drinking but now want Facebook not to post about their Overstock purchases?" are missing the point entirely. You should be able to post whatever you want about yourself--but the touchy Facebook moments are always when it's someone else (or something else, like a program) that does the posting for you.

Second on my radar is our own office's attempt to Groundswellize and begin thinking about how to use social technologies. It's super exciting and I love the Press because everyone there is so into these ideas, and though many of us are new to the various sites, I think we're all talking about the big picture in the right ways. Which is to say, we're helping to construct the big picture. And people are excited to share their thoughts with the world and to get the world involved, which is what it's all about.

Third, I'm home for a long weekend to celebrate my mom's birthday. Happy birthday, mom! We're going to get a Christmas tree and go for brunch and do yummy things like that.

Fourth, The Golden Compass. I have a sense this is about to become a volatile issue in my family, in which we have a few branches with little kids, and some of the branches are born-again Christian and some of the branches are fiery super-liberal. And all the branches come together at Christmastime.

I read the trilogy while writing my senior thesis on C.S. Lewis's fiction. Pullman is a virulent anti-Lewis guy; he has said that he basically wrote his trilogy to give the "liberal intelligentsia" something to read to their kids other than that evil religious goo of Lewis's. It has been remarked that he has managed to go 360 degrees from Lewis and isn't that much different in the end (other than the whole God-killing thing, I suppose).

It's the overall aesthetic idea of the plot which I find most interesting and appealing. Overturning Milton (and by his title Pullman makes it rather clear that he's more interested in overturning Milton than overturning the Bible) has been a central project of English literature for the past few centuries, if you buy Harold Bloom's arguments about poets' anxiety of influence. Pullman does it with no holds barred--and I say kudos to him. He belongs up there with Beardsley and Wilde for challenging social mores for the sake of art.

Unfortunately, I don't think his art is all that good (Wilde's and Beardsley's was). The trilogy doesn't live up to the promise of the Milton-overturning. Creatures on wheels may have worked for Baum in Ozma of Oz, but here they're a forced attempt to depict evolution by natural selection through fiction. Overthrowing Milton is a brilliant idea, except when it, well, fails.

One of the reasons it fails is that it's so clear throughout the novels that Pullman has a personal vendetta against religion and God; and his anger gets in the way of his argument. I think he's angry at God for a lot of the same reasons as Thomas Hardy, part of the original group who came up with the term "agnostic." Hardy complained that if a Supreme Being did exist He was "either limited in power, unknowing, or cruel--which is obvious enough, and has been for centuries." Pullman feels abandoned and mistreated by God, even if--especially if--He doesn't exist. And furthermore Pullman's angry at organized religion for the same reasons as Christopher Hitchens--it arguably causes more strife and death in the world than anything else. He lets this anger run wild in the books and it makes them frustrating to read in places.

The books aren't entirely a hate-fest, though. It's interesting to see where the love-patterns do come out--like between the children and their daemons. There's real emotion there, which is what kept me reading through the something-hundred-odd pages of the trilogy. What do we have to learn from the alternate schema of love-in-the-world that Pullman is proposing? If we are free from God's binding garden, as Pullman would have it, on what basis are we going to interact? (The Enlightenment would joyfully raise Reason to that pedestal.) I want to reread the books if just to figure out Pullman's answers to these questions.

But a more practical question is the children. Much as I'm all for reading and discussing these books, even I feel like I might balk at letting the kiddies see the movies. Am I being suddenly over-conservative? My argument is that it would completely confuse kids to be absorbed in a culture that still presents God as a good being (even an atheist, liberal local culture does this passively at this point) and then to see a movie trilogy that makes killing God its premise? Am I not giving kids enough credit? Would they ask questions? Or would they just be scared? Would they sense that Pullman is mean-spirited? Or would they get his aesthetic project? Would they become atheists but still understand the values of the Narnia movies?

And the real questions: why does it tweak me out so much to see anti-Golden-Compass protests if I too fear the books' implications? And since when do I fear the books' implications? But wait, since when don't I fear the books' implications?

Maybe the hardest thing about conversations about the Golden Compass it that the books make us really think about what we believe, and come to terms with it in a modern, everyday context. And because like fundamental religions the trilogy doesn't create any kind of space for someone to believe both in a religion and in modern liberal values, it becomes just another intolerant voice creating strife.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I also was taken back by the protests (though they seem to have died down a bit, at least, in the media). I'd like to read the books just to see what the anger is all about.

The argument that I find most interesting (and unfounded) is the idea that the producers set out to deliberately convert the kids to atheism. I never thought for a second that Peter Jackson was trying to convert kids to Christianity just because he produced TLTWTW and dumbed down some of the religious overtones. I imagine the books do contain a good story despite the often over-zealous rhetoric.

AGW said...

Yeah, the story idea is ok...the whole thing should be one book, though, and try a little less hard to push virulent liberal atheism from all angles. It's not that I have a problem with liberal atheism, it's that the story suffers because he's trying so hard.